It’s that time again. That pie-baking, parade-watching, table-setting, gravy-simmering, mouth-watering, family-gathering, table-groaning, turkey-gobbling, belt-loosening, dish-washing, football-watching, picture-taking, life-celebrating time. . . Thanksgiving time.
And indeed many of us have much to be thankful for. Warm homes and good food to eat and loving friends and family and the support of this church community. Not a bit of this should be taken for granted, as we know. I love all of that wonderful imagery in our first psalm, beautiful reminders of God’s provision that fit so nicely into this season of gratitude: “You visit the earth and water it… you crown the year with your bounty… the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain.” (Psalm 65: 9-13)
Now I have to confess: there are things I don’t feel especially thankful for over the past year, circumstances and situations we probably all would have been quite happy to have missed. This congregation has been through quite a lot since you gathered as thankful people about this time last year. And don’t get us started on the tragedies that have made the news here in our own city and around the world.
Do you ever have a song get stuck in your head, and find it’s one you actually want to be singing? The other happens to me a lot too of course. The song I wish I didn’t have bouncing around in my brain. But it’s brought a smile when sometimes lately the song I find myself humming around the house is the one we’ve been singing as we present our offering each week this fall: “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice. Look to God; do not be afraid. Lift up your voices, the Lord is near; lift up your voices the Lord is near.”
At first glance it might not be immediately apparent what the line “do not be afraid” is doing in a song about giving thanks, but I love that it’s in there. Because it reminds us that lifting up our voices in praise and thanks to God is something we can do even when life isn’t going swimmingly. Even when we’re hurting, or frightened. For the Lord is near. The Lord is near, and that alone gives us reason to give thanks.
It seems to me Thanksgiving can’t be about forcing people to feel thankful. I can no more make anyone feel grateful this morning than I can force an apology. Because the results would be superficial, at best. And the seasonality of it wouldn’t make any sense. I can no more charge you to feel especially thankful in November than I can ask you to feel especially penitent during the season of Lent. And I don’t believe God demands of us particular emotions at particular times. Imagine if a parent were to say to a child: “It’s about time someone showed a little gratitude around here!” No matter how true the statement might be, the response that followed might or might not be welling up from a genuinely thankful little heart. Just as we can tell the difference between a true apology and a forced one, we know how to distinguish between real expressions of gratitude and those said because someone thinks they’re supposed to. God’s not easily fooled either. And I think God would first of all appreciate our honesty today. For God always meets us where we are.
But if we were to press the parental analogy a bit further, it is also crucial that children learn how to express gratitude to others, how to practice the discipline of offering thanks. That much is expected of them. And it is the discipline of offering thanks that I find expected of me in the Scriptures as well.
Even in English, the word thanksgiving isn’t a feeling word, but an action word: giving thanks. In Hebrew, it’s even more striking. The verb translated as thank or offer thanks in the Old Testament comes from a root meaning ‘to throw’ or ‘to cast’. Think about the physical gesture of placing an offering to God on the altar, presenting a burnt sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. Offering the flesh of an animal on the altar was a concrete, tangible way of expressing gratitude. And if we think about the social context, we’ll remember that for most ancient Israelites it would have been a significant gift. For people who depended on agriculture for their livelihood, to present an animal to God, rather than reserving it for one’s own family, was to make an important theological statement. It was to proclaim that everything one had was from the hand of God, that no gift was too great to return to God. Sending fragrant smoke heavenward was an act of remembrance, and an act of thanksgiving. To offer an offering was to offer thanks.
Word-offerings ascended to the heavens as well, as we notice in the prayers of Israel that have been included in the book of Psalms. The people recalled God’s gracious acts in their national history and gave thanks for the ways they saw God at work in their own lives as well. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever” – the words were likely to have been repeated in the setting of worship, sung or spoken responsively as we’ve just done this morning, and each time they were repeated, the thanksgiving-words themselves were lifted up as an offering to God.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” Of course the people of Israel offered these words when there was every evidence that God was for them. But remember that they offered the very same words even when events in their history made it appear God had forsaken or forgotten them. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” In joy and in sorrow, they reminded one another to practice the discipline of offering thanks.
In the borrowed language of the Psalms and in our own words, we continue this practice of lifting up thankful word-offerings to God in our worship. Like the ancient Israelites, sometimes we are able to say with great conviction: “the Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever,” knowing with every fiber of our being that it is true, that God is good. Those are the moments in life when we almost can’t help but offer our thanks. At other times, we may need to be carried along on the words of our sisters and brothers, to borrow their language, to find support in their faith. Sometimes it’s more a matter of hoping what we say is true, trusting that God is good, that God’s love is steadfast, in spite of life experiences that may have made us feel distant from that love.
And at times, through God’s grace, the very act of repeating words of thanksgiving can help us recall where God has been at work in our lives. The word-offering in that refrain from Psalm 136 might just get inside us (after 10 or 20 repetitions) so we too can affirm with ever-strengthening conviction: “Yes, God’s steadfast love does endure forever!” And so, in joy and in sorrow, we continue to offer our thanks.
Now clearly ours is not a sacrificial religion in the same sense as that of ancient Israel – we tend to hold our barbeques outside of worship – but there still are tangible acts by which we can offer thanks to God. Through financial offerings, for instance. Our predecessors in faith laid precious commodities, valuable assets on the altar of God. Their sacrifices of thanksgiving were real sacrifices because they cost something to give. In the same way, placing our tithes and offerings in the plate here at church, making our financial pledges for the coming year - these are tangible ways to demonstrate our thanks for God’s blessings to us.
We can also share sacrifices of love, time, and service as thank offerings to God. What better way to give thanks that we have enough food to eat than to serve food to those who are hungry? What better way to give thanks that we’re part of a loving community than to welcome someone who is alone or unloved? What better way to recognize we are blessed than to live as blessings to one another? Even as the discipline of thanks-saying, or word-offerings, can help us recognize God at work in our lives, so too the discipline of thank-offering (our time, our money, our service, our prayers) can help remind us of everything we’ve been given.
Thankful feelings may or may not be welling up in your heart at this moment. That’s not a prerequisite for celebrating with your family of faith here today. Thanks-giving is much more than a holiday or a season, much more even than a feeling. It’s an active discipline to which we are called . . . and called to come as we are. Wherever you are in this Thanksgiving season, remember that God’s steadfast love is there as well.
And so we are sent forth this week not simply for pie-baking and turkey-gobbling, but for thanks-saying, thanks-offering, thanks-living.
“O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.” And all God’s grateful children said: Amen!